Fiction: The End of History by Charles Rammelkamp
The End of History
by Charles Rammelkamp
“There are two accidents at the front of the plane, two window exits and two exits in the rear of the plane,” the stewardess said, explaining the emergency evacuation procedures and safety precautions in the airplane.
Paul Eppinghaus sat bolt upright in his seat. Did she say accidents? None of the other passengers seemed to notice. He had only listened to the usual litany with half an ear. But he could have sworn she’d said “accidents.” And what if she had? He smiled grimly at his superstitious reasoning. Was it some sort of supernatural warning? Did some power put the words into her mouth? He looked over at Jared, who was in the same dozing posture he had been in a moment before. The semiconsciousness of travel sleep, no different on an airplane than on a train or a bus.
He’d been dreaming, or half dreaming and half imagining, a terrorist hijacking. Sitting in a plane on the runway of an abandoned airport in the middle of the desert while the terrorist kidnappers made demands for weapons and the release of political prisoners, and the statesmen in the capitol refused to give in to them; it would only encourage more hijackings, they said; they had to stand tough, not give in. Meanwhile, one by one, the passengers were humiliated and beaten up, made to say certain things in tape recorded messages. One army officer was shot to death right in the airplane; the noise was deafening and the stench of gunpowder overwhelming, and then a foul-smelling swarthy little man with an automatic rifle started trying to make Eppinghaus read an
ungrammatical statement praising his captors and pleading that their demands be met.
He tried playing dumb, and the little man lost patience and stabbed him in the forehead with the butt of his rifle. The pain swallowed him up, it was so devastating. Eppinghaus had just been experiencing the pain, actually huddling up in a fetal ball on the seat, when the stewardess’ voice woke him up.
Eppinghaus glanced over at his nephew, Jared. “It’ll be nice to see Potawatomi Falls again, in spite of the circumstances.” They were flying from Baltimore out to Michigan for the funeral of Eppinghaus’ father, Jared’s grandfather.
Eppinghaus felt warm and elated; he felt as if he’d made a great breakthrough in
communications with his nephew, and he started to talk, non-stop, to lecture, gesturing with the white plastic fork that came with his breakfast as though it were a piece of schoolroom chalk. He harangued Jared about Amerigo Vespucci, his principal historical interest, until they got to Detroit to catch the connecting flight to Grand Rapids, relating arcane facts about Amerigo’s childhood, how he had been one of four boys, how his mother, whose name was Mona Lisa, had been partial to her first-born son Antonio but how the other two brothers, Girolamo, a Hierosolymite friar in Rhodes, and Bernardo, a sort of vagabond adventurer in Hungary, had both looked to Amerigo as the brother to confide in; they preferred to write to Amerigo than to Antonio.
“The main thing about Amerigo, the essential fact, is that people liked him.”
“There’s a painting by Ghirlandaio in the Ognissanti Church in Florence that shows members of the Vespucci family. It’s a fresco divided into two scenes. The upper part shows Our Lady of Mercy covering eleven of the Vespucci with her mantle, and in the bottom part, which shows the Descent from the Cross, all the characters are from scripture except Giorgio Antonio and Amerigo. Shelley and I saw it when we went to Italy on our honeymoon. Amerigo’s only about your age in it, Jared, a young man around twenty; both he and Giorgio Antonio are depicted with halos of sainthood around their heads. At that time they thought Amerigo would enter the church.”
“Interestingly, by the way, Botticelli painted Amerigo’s beautiful cousin, Simonetta, in Venus and Mars and in the Primavera.”
“Botticelli, huh? No shit. Huh, that’s interesting,” Jared said, and Eppinghaus realized he had probably killed any rapport he had established, probably bored Jared’s ears off. They were sitting in cramped little seats on the small airplane that was taking them from Detroit to Grand Rapids, where they would rent a car to Potawatomi Falls.
“All that stuff sounds like a fairy tale,” Jared said. “All that stuff about Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus. I mean, it sounds like a comic book.”
“Well, it happened.”
“But why study it?”
“Because it’s interesting.”
“Not to me.”
“Well, it is to me.”
“And that’s why you study history? Because it’s interesting?”
“Oh, there are other reasons. The official reasons. Understanding why things are the way they are, your cultural and national precedents, all that. Learn from the past, blah, blah, blah. But I guess I wouldn’t study it if it didn’t seem interesting to me. Still, I may know more details than an average person needs to know, but the basic outline is important. That’s what I tell my students. If you want to be a lawyer, for instance, you ought to know enough history to understand how the laws came about, the Constitution, the judicial system and all that.”
“I have no desire to be a lawyer.”
“What do you want to be?”
Eppinghaus did not reply but took a long final swig of his orange juice to conceal his dismay.
“You’re about as impressed as I am by lawyers, I guess,” Jared laughed self-consciously.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s only for self-defense. You know how math teachers justify their discipline by saying if you can’t add and subtract then you’ll be cheated by shopowners and all that? It’s the same with History, really. I mean, you read these grocery store tabloids with headlines like NAZI ASTRONAUTS RETURN TO EARTH, you know, people believe that stuff. They’re duped just as badly as the guy who gets cheated out of a dollar, if you want to put it on that level.
“I mean, History is basic knowledge; that’s what it is. It’s like knowing who you are. Over fifty percent of high school kids in America today don’t realize that freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution, let alone know who the hell Adolf Hitler or Winston Churchill were. Do you understand what that means?” Eppinghaus shrugged helplessly under the enormity of the implications. “Why did they write the Declaration of Independence in the first place? What’s so special about America? Why is it so ‘revolutionary,’ given the whole span of human history? Why give a shit about America if you don’t know about the Constitution and what it guarantees, how it came about in the dialectic of history? Granted, it’s not a useful piece of information to some lounge lizard out in Las Vegas whose job is to win money at cards or dice, but the country’s made up of more than that, and it’s certainly run and managed by other types.”
“How come you can’t convey the importance of these facts to schoolkids, then? I mean, if it’s not basically ‘interesting’ to them, how are you going to get them to learn it?”
“Bingo. You’ve hit on one of the major disappointments of my profession, Jared. A lot of the time I feel like I’m wasting my time, that the kids see me as a sort of jailor, or a babysitter at best. We can’t all be like Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society. I try to instill an interest in History, but it doesn’t always work, try to show its relevance. At best it’s on a personal level when they try to do well in my classes. I don’t think many of them care a hell of a lot about History. They just want good grades. But some are interested, sure.”
“You ever have troublemakers? Smartasses?”
“Not really. Not as bad as some. One of my colleagues was robbed a few times, and her car was vandalized. Her classroom was vandalized once, too. Filthy stuff written on the blackboard. I remember that vividly.” Eppinghaus recalled the graffiti. Huge dongs and a gravestone. He had walked into the classroom with Edith that morning to retrieve a book she had borrowed from him.
“They ever catch the people who did it?”
“No, but she had a pretty good idea who did it. She suspected it was this girl who later
became a crack addict and had a baby that she drowned in a toilet.”
Jared shook his head in wonder. “You wonder what good History or any discipline is to a person like that.”
“Wasn’t it Henry Ford who said that History is Bunk?”
“Yeah, it was Henry Ford,” Eppinghaus said. “That asshole.”
When their plane landed in Grand Rapids, they toted their baggage to the nearest car rental agency and got a Ford Escort to drive up to Potawatomi Falls, another hour or so up the coast of Lake Michigan. Autumn had already come to this part of the country. The blueness of the sky had that limpid, anemic quality, and the trees had already started to turn colors. It was still only late morning as they drove along the coast. Out over the lake, the water misted in rainbows, a film of color hovering over the blue. The sun flooded in from the east, highlighting the colors and the dazzle of wavelets. Still, there was a forlorn, autumnal feeling about it — barren, skeletal, stripped to nothing — and far out, over the horizon, they heard the bass horn of a passenger liner headed for Green Bay or Chicago tooting and echoing over the water, a mournful sound that seemed to announce death.
“Have you ever heard of an essay called ‘The End of History’ by some State department official?” Jared asked, looking at his uncle but gazing past him toward the lake.
“Francis Fukuyama? Yeah. You’ve heard about it, too?”
“Yeah. I haven’t read it. But it’s a great title. The End of History! But how could that ever be? Events keep occurring. Time keeps passing. What’s the bumper sticker say? Shit Happens.”
“Fukuyama’s an Hegelian. He sees history as a dialectic of ideas; ideas shape material reality. The idea of liberal democracy, which was the creation of seventeenth and eighteenth century English and French thinkers, is proving to be the dominant idea in the world. The idea produces material conditions. Marx had it the other way around. He said the prevailing material mode of production determined the ‘superstructure’ of ideas — art and philosophy and so on.”
Over the next several days, Eppinghaus and Jared took care of the necessary family business, making arrangements with the lawyers and, after the holiday, with the bank. They helped out with the arrangements for the funeral home and helped Eleanor Eppinghaus around the house. They brought all the summer things inside, including the boat at the beach that had not been used for several years.
Eppinghaus watched his spindly mother hover over the picture window in the kitchen, lost in thought, gazing at the lake. Charles Eppinghaus had built his home on the peak of the hill for which the street had originally been named, before Potawatomi Falls had been developed and expanded to the extent it had been. Long, ropy veins embossed Eleanor Eppinghaus’ thin, bony arms. Large moles that looked like nipples spotted the leathery, liver-colored skin. Her face, a network of lines and furrows, collapsed in at the cheeks, making little hollows, so you could see the outline of the bare skull underneath. Her eyes popped out like a lizard’s. At one time, when she was in her 50’s, Eleanor Eppinghaus had been plump and bovine. She had worn her red-dyed hair up, coiffed in a Marie Antoinette style, and she had worn skirts slit up the side, very risqué in Potawatomi Falls society and rather embarrassing to her son. Not that he’d ever said anything about it. Over the years since then she had dwindled away until she had become this austere, birdlike woman. Eppinghaus sometimes wondered if her neck were strong enough to support her heavy metal-frame glasses.
At the funeral the next day, Jared and Eppinghaus both served as pallbearers, along with various friends of the family. There was a brief, open-casket ceremony in the Marsh Funeral Home, and then they all climbed into the hearse for the slow ride out to the cemetery.
Eleanor Eppinghaus, who had been so composed all along, now burst out crying. She was dressed in a navy blue suit and a veil.
“This is when you know he’s gone!” she cried piteously, and she spurned Dewey Collins when he tried to comfort her.
The day was overcast, but there was no rain. A cool breeze came in off the lake. In the cemetery, the trees had all turned red and orange and brown. Some had even fallen from the trees. At the graveside, the minister said a eulogy and prayed. Numbed, Eppinghaus remembered his conversation with Jared the day before when they had gone down Cass Street in search of “the People’s Commune,” where Jared’s mother and father had lived twenty years before, where indeed Jared may have been conceived. They had not been able to locate the house. All Eppinghaus could remember about it was the bright Chinese Communist red the “comrades” had painted it. Of course, no such house now existed anywhere. Either he could not identify the structure, or it had been removed. A part of history blotted out. They talked about Jared’s parents, Blake and Katrina, while they went home. Jared’s mother had died several years earlier in a horrible drug-fueled drowning in Florida. Jared had been living with his uncle in Baltimore the past two years.
“I hate my old man,” Jared said. “I wish that fucker had died instead of Grandpa.”
Remembering this now at the graveside, Eppinghaus thought of the words of Ivan Karamazov at his brother’s trial: Who doesn’t desire his father’s death? Freud said the same thing. He recalled his own passionate death wishes on his father for meddling in his life, and what a different man Charles Eppinghaus had been from Blake Mooney! Oh, the irrational need of fathers to be a hero to their children! How oppressive his father had sometimes been. Yet here was Jared resenting Blake for neglecting him, for virtually disowning him, and here Eppinghaus was trying to fill the void Blake had left! Maybe that spelled the end of history, the succession of generations. The emergence of a New World, still so inextricably bound up with the old; just as all human history is about success and suffering and dying, pain and worry and the occasional moment of elation and the satiation that almost instantly becomes craving, again and again and again, in America as in any place else. The end and the beginning are all mixed up together.
The minister concluded his prayer. Eleanor Eppinghaus sobbed into her hands. The pallbearers lowered the casket into the earth.